In March, a new trade association for manufacturers and importers of 100 per cent plant-based foods saw the light of day. And now, a new study from Aarhus BSS offers Nestlé, Dragsbæk and the other members of the association an insight into what ignites the consumers’ willingness to buy. This knowledge allows members to invest in the most effective packaging and marketing of their products in future.
“Consumers attach almost only positive associations to plant-based products. However, no matter how you communicate about these products, health plays a very important role. If consumers don’t perceive your product as being healthy, it would be a good idea for manufacturers to focus on sustainability or possible substitute ingredients instead,” says Anne O. Peschel, assistant professor at the Department of Management/MAPP Centre, Aarhus BSS.
One such substitute ingredient comes from the potato, which despite being among the world’s most cultivated crops is still not being optimally utilised. For that reason, researchers and companies are currently looking into ways to make better use of the potato and thereby contribute to more sustainable products in future. This work takes place in projects such as ProPOTATO* (funded by Innovation fund Denmark) where Aarhus University together with the University of Copenhagen, KMC, AKV Langholt and DuPont Industrial Biosciences are working to develop new protein-based ingredients and consumer-oriented marketing strategies. The project also explores the challenges and industrial opportunities of potato protein.
Until now, potato protein has been merely a waste product from the potato flour industry and has only been used in animal feed. One of the goals of the project is to come up with alternative uses. However, as it is expensive to extract the protein from the potato and turn it into food fit for humans, the researchers want to make sure that consumers actually want to buy the potato protein products before manufacturing begins.
“To gain a better understanding of consumer behaviour when it comes to plant-based foods, our study explores what consumers really think when they hear or read something about plant-based products,” Peschel explains. Together with a number of colleagues, she is responsible for the study Consumers’ associative networks of plant-based food product communications, which is one of the sub-projects in ProPOTATO.
Here the researchers explore consumers’ acceptance of potato protein as a substitute for animal products by studying the consumers’ associations - that is: when people are exposed to different types of information about plant-based products, what do they think of the products?
The researchers chose three different frames or types of information: health, sustainability and substitution (i.e. information about potato protein as a substitute ingredient in the product).
Health means that I as a consumer believe the product is healthy for me.
Sustainability means that I as a consumer contribute to a more sustainable world by buying the product.
These two frames play on an emotional level - what do I feel when I buy the product - while the third frame, substitution, is purely factual: what does this product contain?
“The first two frames were chosen because we know from previous research that in other contexts, these perspectives lead to increased sales of plant-based foods; namely that consumers think the product is healthier, or that they want to do something positive for the environment,” Peschel explains.
The third frame was chosen for two reasons: Firstly, the market is currently characterised by the so-called clean label-trend. This means that products should contain as few ingredients as possible, and that it should be easy for consumers to understand what the products contain. Secondly, plant-based ingredients are replacing more and more animal ingredients such as milk protein.
“That’s why we need to learn more about what the consumer thinks when the label says potato protein - how does focusing on the ingredient affect the consumer’s willingness to buy?” she says.
"It matters a great deal how plant-based products are communicated to the consumers. For that reason, these results may serve as guidelines for how companies should communicate their plant-based products to consumers."
Anne O. Peschel - ph.d. assistant professor, Department of Management/MAPP Centre, Aarhus BSS
The researchers invited 90 consumers who were already vegetarians or interested in reducing their consumption of meat, i.e. in the target group for plant-based products, to participate in the survey. They were divided into three focus groups, and each group was presented with an information frame: health, sustainability or substitution. Afterwards, participants were given a piece of paper where they had to write down everything they could think of based on a particular frame sentence (e.g. “plant-based foods in which ingredients that were previously animal-based have been substituted with potato protein” under the substitution frame). Participants were then asked to connect the words that fit together, for example ‘environment’ and ‘climate’, so that in the end, a mind map of associations would appear for each frame (see picture). Finally, the focus groups were presented with different product ideas that might be plant-based, for example sausages or protein drinks. They would then discuss how they would use this product, who would buy it etc.
According to Peschel, this method primarily has two limitations. Firstly, the study only includes consumers from the target group, which means that it does not say anything about people who are not interested in reducing their consumption of meat. At the moment, this is approximately half of the population. Secondly, the information provided by the researchers is very general since it only consists of a piece of paper with one sentence on it.
“What would happen if the sausage substitute was presented to the consumers in packaging that said potato protein? And how would the consumer be affected by other factors in a purchase situation, for example other people, time pressure or price?” Peschel asks and adds:
“However, even with those limitations, the process showed that it matters a great deal how plant-based products are communicated to the consumers. For that reason, these results may serve as guidelines for how companies should communicate their plant-based products to consumers.”
In this context, the conclusion is first and foremost that 1) no matter how you communicate plant-based nutrition, health is the most important factor. This is in line with previous research in the area. And 2) that consumers have almost only positive associations when it comes to these products.
“If you can market your product as plant-based, it’s often a good thing, since the word ‘plant-based’ gives rise to more positive than negative associations in the target group,” Peschel says and elaborates on the specific findings within the three frames.
Health - here the consumer considers the level of processing, which plays an important role (the product should be processed as little as possible). ‘Is potato protein highly processed?’, the consumer may ask themselves. And thus: ‘Is the product really that healthy?
Sustainability - here the consumer reflects on the authenticity of the product. Something from an animal has been replaced with something from a plant, and is that really authentic?
“We are talking about small nuances, though. You might think that the more processed the product is, the less authentic it is. However, for the consumers in our study, processing has something to do with health, whereas sustainability has something to do with authenticity; if I’m going to eat a sausage, it has to be a sausage and not something else. Sustainability also concerns the environment in itself - carbon footprint etc. - which is probably to be expected, whereas authenticity is perhaps less expected,” says Peschel.
Substitution - here the focus is on how being factual about the product ingredients affects the taste - that is: if potato protein is a substitute, I am happy to eat a sausage that tastes like potato? It turns out that the consumers have a lot of positive as well as negative thoughts about taste, which makes taste a key factor.
The results reveal some rules of thumb for how companies should market their plant-based products. However, they must be considered rules of thumb. Not simply because the study has its limitations as stated above, but also because the findings contain many nuances.
Overall, it is important for companies to analyse the product itself if they wish to sell plant-based products. If you have a product that is healthy in the sense that consumers perceive it as healthy, it may be a good idea to underline the health aspect of the plant-based nutrition in the marketing - since health is the most important factor.
“However, when you communicate via the health frame, the consumer will consider the level of processing and whether the product really is healthy. This means that if consumers don’t perceive your product as healthy, it’s better to emphasise sustainability in connection with plant-based nutrition. One example is plant-based milk alternatives like oat and almond milk. These products are healthy enough in and of themselves, but as they have been processed some consumers won’t think of them as healthy. In that case, companies should emphasise sustainability in their communication,” Peschel explains.
The study also shows that if you highlight substitution, you need to make sure that you also highlight the tastiness of the product***. In addition, price is particularly significant in the substitution frame. Here the consumers’ associations about products that are typically more expensive play a more important role.
“Consumers generally perceive plant-based foods as being more expensive. This is particularly important when you use the substitution frame. So if you have a product with a higher price point and if you don’t want your consumers to think about this, then you shouldn’t use the substitution frame,” Peschel says.
All in all, the results can be summarised as follows: if you are a food manufacturer and want consumers to choose plant-based foods, you need to look at the properties of the product and find out how these are perceived by consumers. If consumers perceive the product as healthy, you should emphasise the health aspect in your marketing. If consumers do not perceive the product as healthy, the choice is between sustainability or substitution. However, if consumers find the product expensive, it would probably be better to use the sustainability frame. And if you use substitution, you should also highlight good taste.
* Read more about the project
** The objective of the project is to gain a better understanding of consumer behaviour and associations in relation to plant-based foods. Thus it would not make sense to ask consumers outside of the target group. Doing so would require completely different arguments and be a completely different study since the cognitive structures of consumers with no interest in plant-based foods are expected to be less well-established. The simple reason is that these consumers will not have considered how they feel about these products. Therefore it would make sense to use a different data collection method for people outside of the target group as these will have fewer associations to draw on.
*** If you would like to know more about the consumer taste expectations for potato protein, see this study.
New method of analysis
In addition to the new results on how to market plant-based foods, the study has also combined a new method of analysis (text mining) with a traditional method (concept mapping). Traditionally, you would analyse concept mapping by using a human coder. This process takes longer and is more subjective than text mining, which is controlled by an algorithm allowing for more objective categorisations of the consumers’ associations.
Anne O. Peschel, Shahab Kazemi, Martina Liebichová, Stine Cecilie Mangaard Sarraf, Jessica Aschemann-Witzel, Consumers’ associative networks of plant-based food product communications. Food Quality and Preference, Volume 75, July 2019